Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev have vowed to reduce tensions and set up a direct hotline between the two sides, after a meeting in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.
The meeting was the first public interaction between the two countries’ leaders after a recent change in power in Armenia.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in a long-lasting stalemate in peace negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Aliyev and Pashinyan met informally on 28 September on the sidelines of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit in Tajikistan’s capital. The CIS, a regional grouping that emerged after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, currently has nine members, all post-Soviet countries, including both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders first met during a previous, less formal meeting of CIS heads in June, organised by Russian President Vladimir Putin after the opening of the FIFA World Cup in Russia. However, no direct talks between the two were reported then.
In a late night Facebook Live broadcast following the discussions, Pashinyan stated that he and Aliyev had agreed to open a direct line of communication between each other.
‘We agreed to instruct the defence ministers to undertake concrete steps to de-escalate tensions on the border zone [with Nagorno-Karabakh]. Particularly, steps to prevent border incidents’, said Pashinyan.
He noted that the previous night was the calmest on the border with Nagorno-Karabakh since he was elected to office in May.
Pashinyan said he had informed the president of Nagorno-Karabakh, Bako Sahakyan, about the agreement.
Azerbaijani authorities confirmed that both sides ‘decided to develop mechanisms to establish operational communication between respective agencies’.
Hopes too high?
Azerbaijani freelance journalist Seymur Kazimov thinks that expectations should be realistic, especially as meetings on the resolution of the conflict by the OSCE Minsk Group had proved ‘ineffective’.
The OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia, France, and the United States, was set up in 1992 to find a peaceful settlement to the conflict.
‘To consider this short conversation a success for the long perspective is misleading. Resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict doesn’t depend on short-term success’, Kazimov told OC Media.
He said local media in Azerbaijan frequently show programmes and discussions dedicated to Nagorno-Karabakh, but they convey only the positions of the ruling party and not the ‘interests of [Azerbaijani] society’.
Armenian political commentator Grigor Atanesian thinks it is too early to say if the new agreement will yield any change, but that ‘there could hardly be a second opinion on whether both sides promising to not shoot at each other’s soldiers on the border is a good thing or not, so there wasn’t any significant pushback in Armenia’.
Speaking to OC Media, Laurence Broers, associate fellow at the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, called the outcome of the meeting ‘more a statement of intent rather than an agreement’.
He said that although ‘the agreement to reduce tensions is obviously welcome, it does not present anything new’. Broers noted that such statements ‘were never followed up in the past’, recalling a meeting in Geneva in October 2017 as a case in point.
In a report in July, Amnesty International noted that ‘in 2017, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed, in principle, to increase the number of conflict observers of the personal representative of the OSCE chairperson-in-office from the current six to thirteen. As yet, the sides have not carried out this important albeit limited step toward improving transparency along the line of contact’.
The week before the meeting in Dushanbe, Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers Zohrab Mnatsakanyan and Elmar Mammadyarov met in New York together with one of the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group and Russian, French, and US representatives.
The leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan last met in a Minsk Group meeting in October 2017, when Serzh Sargsyan was still President of Armenia.
He and Azerbaijani President Aliyev vowed to work towards de-escalating the situation, but the reports of casualties along the Line of Contact from both sides continued after.
‘Nevertheless, it is a positive step away from the uncertainty and risk associated with the change of regime in Armenia and Azerbaijani reactions to it’, Broers told OC Media.
‘The introduction of a hotline across the Line of Contact would be a very welcome development. President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan should back it up with the establishment of a backchannel as another way to get to know each other and reduce uncertainty’.
Olesya Vartanyan, an analyst with international peacebuilding organisation the International Crisis Group (ICG), hailed the news on Twitter, saying that establishing a channel of communication to sustain the ceasefire was something the ICG had advocated for in their 2017 report.
6/7 This September was the deadliest month for the Armenian side in a year, with 4 soldiers reported killed in Nagorno #Karabakh conflict zone and Tavush region. No efforts should be spared to minimise incidents, including making sure the new channel of communication works...
— Olesya Vartanyan (@Olesya_vArt) October 1, 2018
‘This September was the deadliest month for the Armenian side in a year, with four soldiers reported killed in [the] Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone and Tavush region’, Vartanyan said. ‘No efforts should be spared to minimise incidents, including making sure the new channel of communication works’
‘If it helps to save at least one life, this is already a major success.’
Nagorno-Karabakh’s inclusion in talks
The talk came just two days after the Armenian Prime Minister chastised the Azerbaijani authorities in a speech to the UN General Assembly in New York.
Pashinyan had argued that Azerbaijan’s refusal to engage with the authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh suggested Baku’s only plan for the region was to ‘cleanse’ it of its local Armenian population in a ‘new genocide of the Armenian people’.
Since coming to power, Pashinyan has insisted the authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh be included in the peace process.
Grigor Atanesian told OC Media Pashinyan was likely to ‘keep pushing’ for Nagorno-Karabakh’s leadership to be included in the negotiations.
‘But he doesn’t give any timeline for this, and it’s unclear whether that’s a precondition to any talks or a distant goal for the Armenian side’.
Seymur Kazimov described the Armenian Prime Minister’s plans as ‘impossible’. ‘Pashinyan may only be expressing his desires about Nagorno-Karabakh’s involvement in the negotiations, or such statements could be calculated for an internal audience’, Kazimov said.
According to Laurence Broers, the Azerbaijani authorities have ‘understandable concerns’ that negotiating with the authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh could imply a recognition of their legitimacy, but that in reality, their ‘participation in the peace process in no way equates to recognition’
While it is often framed as ‘an Armenian goal’, Broers believes it to be a necessary precondition for the process to succeed.
‘What it could mean is that elites and society in Karabakh itself begin to feel some responsibility for the outcome of the Minsk Process. That includes a sense of responsibility towards the Azerbaijani population forced out of Karabakh in 1992.’
‘Participation means politics, rather than posturing. So, I would say this is not “Pashinyan’s goal” but the eventual goal of anyone who believes in the capacities of an inclusive political process to resolve the issues at stake’, Broers told OC Media.
For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.